Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx: Contrasting proposals for approaching socialism

This text was submitted by Freedom’s longest-running contributor Donald Rooum. We publish it to mark Karl Marx’s 200th birthday.

The word “socialism” has many uses. Coined in about 1827, it was used interchangeably with “Owenism” in the 1830s, to mean provision of happy social life, as in the villages provided by Robert Owen for his factory workers. Later it was used, and is still used, to mean a synonym for the word “communism” as was used in the 1860s, meaning a society without bosses, in which “everyone gives according to ability and is given according to need” (“Jeder nach seinen Fāhigkeiten, jeden nach seinen Bedürfnissen“). The phrase is often attributed to Marx, but it did not appear in any of his own writings until 1875, when it was already well known among socialists. It was used as early as 1844 in a book by August Becker called Was Wollen die Kommunisten (What the Communists Want).

The International Working Men’s Association (the “First International”) was a federation of trade unions. Their first meeting was in 1864 at Saint Martin’s Hall, London, a concert hall on the site of the present-day Queen’s Theatre. The second meeting was in Geneva in 1866. As a working class organisation it had some success in improving conditions for workers, but these days it is chiefly remembered for the work of its two philosophers, Bakunin and Marx, neither of whom were working-class.

Mikhail Bakunin was born in 1814, into the Russian “petty nobility”, and inherited property including villages whose inhabitants were slaves of the landowner, or serfs. The feudal system had ceased in England by the 17th century, but continued in Russia until 1861 (four years before the abolition of chattel slavery in the USA). As a teenage prince he did a short stint as an army officer, then joined the University of Moscow as a student of philosophy, which at that time meant reading Hegel and other German philosophers. He translated some works by Johann Gottlieb Fichte into Russian, which led to his being offered a teaching post at the University of Berlin, in 1840. In 1847 he wrote some stuff which annoyed the Russian government, which abolished his title, confiscated all his property, and applied to the Prussian government to have him arrested and deported to Russia. From then until 1859 he was in prison, mostly in Saint Petersburg. After his release he was banned from metropolitan Russia and moved to Siberia, where he married Antonia Kwatkowska, and got a job working for the government in the Amur Development Agency. After a time he was able to get back to Western Europe via Japan and America, arriving in Italy in 1864.

Karl Marx was born in 1819. In 1831 he enrolled at the University of Berlin to study law, but was mostly interested in philosophy, and wrote a dissertation on the differences between Democriteans and Epicureans. In 1842 he got a job as a journalist on the Rheinische Zieitung in Cologne, where he wrote about the Russian monarchy, in such terms as to make the tsar insist that the newspaper must be shut down. He then moved to Paris, as co-editor of the radical Deutsch Franzosicher Jarbuch.

Neither Marx nor Bakunin were delegates to the IWMA. Marx attended the inaugural meeting in London as a journalist, and made a speech which so impressed the delegates that he was elected to the General Council (of 32 members). Bakunin was not at the inaugural meeting, but spoke at the second meeting in Geneva in 1886, and played some part in drafting the manifesto. Marx was sent a copy of the minutes of the Geneva meeting, which is preserved among Marx’s papers, with his marginal notes. Marx and Bakunin recognised each other as socialists. Bakunin translated Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Marx and Engels (The Communist Manifesto), into Russian. But the two philosophers disagreed about how the socialist society might be achieved.

Marx thought the workers of the world could unite, to seize the power of the ruling class, and elect a revolutionary government which would use authoritarian methods, to guide humanity to socialism.

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of revolutionary transformation … Corresponding to this is a period of political transition in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
~ Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875

Bakunin thought that an elected revolutionary government would behave like any other government.

What is the meaning of ‘the proletariat organised as a dominant class’? Does it mean the entire proletariat will be conducting public affairs? … Could it be that all these forty million will be part of the government, with the entire people governing and no-one being governed? … Marxists pretend that only dictatorship – of course their own – can create freedom for the people. To this we reply that no dictatorship can have any other goal but to endure as long as possible.
~ Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

As a student in the 1960s and later, I had many friendly debates with members of the Communist Party, who would tell me that anarchists did not want a revolution. After Stalin’s death, many were shocked to learn what Stalin was really like, and some took the view that all would have been well if Lenin had been succeeded by Trotsky and not Stalin, or that leadership of the world Communist party had now passed to Mao Ze Dong. They overlooked the fact that the work of a dictatorship cannot be done by the dictator alone, but requires the support of a hierarchy of lesser officials.

In the 1960s, preparing for a debate with a Communist Party member, I read a book on Soviet case law. One of the cases concerned a man at a re-education camp in Siberia, who told the tutor that the chairman of his collective farm was taking more than his legal share of the produce, and was sent to Siberia when he reported the chairman to the local magistrate. There was an investigation which led to the chairman, the magistrate, and the manager of the machine tractor station being found guilty of corruption, and shot. A harsh way of enforcing Communist honesty, but we know that after the break-up of the Soviet Union, some of those who became dictators had been collective farm chairmen.

It may be concluded that Bakunin won the philosophical argument, while Marx won the power struggle. But Bakunin’s victory seems to have been incomplete. He seems to have thought that if ordinary people were freed of bosses they would automatically organise themselves into a free society with a socialist gift economy. But there is no reason to suppose that people, brought up in a culture of deference and obedience, will suddenly change their lifelong customs, any more than people used to expressing their opinions will suddenly fall silent. Cultures change, but this takes time. Recent anarchist writers, such as Berkman, Malatesta, and especially Colin Ward, advocate calling for small cultural changes, as the best way of producing big ones.

The very growth of the state and its bureacracy, the giant corporation and its privileged hierarchy, … are giving rise to parallel organisations, … alternative organisations, which exemplify the anarchist method.
~ Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action, 1969

In my life, I have witnessed several changes of cultural attitudes, in the direction of socialism.

  • The National Health Service is half socialist (not “from each according to ability”, but the half which goes “to each according to need”), and so entrenched in British culture that no politician dare speak against it.
  • The end of the death penalty. The last, and finally successful move against the death penalty was started by two London anarchists who asked the London Anarchist Group to organise a meeting.
  • In the early 1970s, walls in the East End of London were often chalked with slogans like “Blacks Out!” until the Class War movement persuaded kids to change, from “Blacks out!” to chalk the slogan “Shit on the rich!”

My own favourite campaign was against corporal punishment in British schools. The cat-o-nine tails whip was used in the armed forces in the nineteenth century, and accepted as normal and ordinary by both perpetrators and victims until it was abolished in the early twentieth century, but the cane continued to be used against children in schools until 1990. Young teachers today are appalled to learn that such barbarity was so recent.

Donald Rooum